Air conditioning units poke from original windows of the stately Madison Municipal Building, marring the landmark’s historic look and symbolizing its aged and inefficient mechanical systems.

Inside, city agencies are spread out in offices not designed for their current purpose, with the Planning Division jammed in the basement.

Nearby, across Pinckney Street, ceilings of the obsolete Government East parking garage show unnerving swaths of eroded concrete and exposed rusting metal rods or recent patches. The 55-year-old garage is safe, officials said, but the temporary repairs to keep it so are costly, occupy parking spaces during construction, create noise and dust and are a hassle for customers.

For years, the city has resisted major investments in the Municipal Building and Government East for fear of squandering resources as it anticipated a major redevelopment of their host blocks, now called Judge Doyle Square. The vision for the blocks currently includes a hotel for Monona Terrace, housing, commercial space, a bicycle center and even more parking spots.

Now, with the city and a private development team rethinking options and the prospects uncertain for the broad redevelopment, Mayor Paul Soglin has offered a capital budget that proposes spending a combined $51 million to move forward with renovation of the Municipal Building and replacement of Government East while leaving open the possibility of private elements of Judge Doyle Square.

Landmark in need of repair

As the budget process unfolds, a private architectural and design firm is helping forge concepts for a renovated Municipal Building and City-County Building — the latter less beloved and also in need of attention — and how to best use the space between them on the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The city’s borrowing and debt have made it hard to address every deserving public improvement project, “but we’re at a point where we can make selective decisions,” Soglin said. “Now is the time to act.”

The Municipal Building, designed under U.S. Treasury Department supervising architect James Wetmore in the neoclassical revival style and built between 1927 and 1929, was initially used as a federal courthouse and a post office. It was the first piece of a grand scheme by renowned urban planner John Nolen to turn the street into a civic boulevard between the state Capitol and Lake Monona.

The city acquired the building in 1979, making significant renovations between then and 1982, including a gutting of the first floor and basement, and replacement of steel frame windows on lower floors that are now incompatible with the original design.

The majority of the exterior limestone is in good condition, and its structure is sound, but the building has maintenance challenges and isn’t designed for its current purpose. The Planning Division is accessed by a maze of corridors, with the director of Planning, Community and Economic Development’s office sitting windowless in the center of the basement.

“It’s like going down into a submarine,” said Bryan Cooper, an architect with the city Engineering Division.

The boilers, chiller, cooling tower, fire alarm system, main electrical service and upper-floor wiring all exceed life expectancy. The building’s masonry mortar joints are deteriorated, remaining original steel windows are degraded, interior lighting is inefficient, and interior spaces have poor air circulation and look tired and worn. Over the years, renovations have hidden elements of the first floor, including the original main lobby, and original grand courtroom.

“We’re depending on leaks in windows for ventilation,” Cooper joked.

Soglin declined to comment on the maintenance efforts of previous administrations but said decisions about the long-term use of the Municipal Building and how it fit into Judge Doyle Square were only made this year.

The mayor proposes spending $30 million to re-establish the building as a “healthy, productive and pleasant environment both inside and out, for city staff and visitors alike.”

MSR Design of Minneapolis is helping the city shape what that might be like, preserving, restoring and showcasing historic elements but also transforming the landmark into a 21st century office building, MSR principal Traci Engel Lesneski said.

The keys are the mechanical system, windows, the elevator, corridors and the courtroom, bringing light into the building, reconfiguring work spaces and making it all energy efficient, while still anticipating connections to private elements of Judge Doyle Square, Lesneski said.

The city, she and Cooper said, have a recent model in the $15 million modernization of the landmark Aspinall Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Grand Junction, Colorado, which has many similarities to the Municipal Building. That project combined restoration, replica lights and other features, and interior glass to introduce sunlight to the core of the 96-year-old structure.

Ald. David Ahrens, 15th District, who has challenged many elements of Judge Doyle Square, said the city is overreaching in its plan for the Municipal Building. “I think something can be done,” he said. “I don’t know why we have to go from ‘Something has to be done’ to a $30 million project.”

‘Patches upon patches’

Government East, hardly a landmark, nonetheless is the city’s busiest parking garage and a key element of Judge Doyle Square.

Built in 1958 and expanded in 1965, the garage now has 516 parking spaces plus spots for six motorcycles and two bike racks. The dated lighting casts a yellow hue, and the structure has no elevator.

Phased repairs began in the 1970s with the next substantial phase in the late 1990s that included restoring slabs and putting a membrane on the surface.

These days, the sight of closed spaces and sound of jackhammers are a rite of summer at Government East, with repairs to slabs, columns, beams, electrical service and more costing about $250,000 a year.

It would cost about $8 million to make the garage usable for another 20 years, city Parking Division engineer Bill Putnam said.

“We’ve got patches upon patches upon patches,” he said. “It’s a constant process. We’re keeping it safe and serviceable. We’re not putting a lot of money into cosmetics.”

Government East is one of several garages that must be replaced in the next decade or so, Soglin said, adding, “This is in the most dire condition, so it will be first.”

Soglin’s budget envisions a new, $21 million garage financed by the city’s parking utility with about 600 spaces on the Judge Doyle Square site. It would be built in 2015 and 2016. The garage, the budget says, may be built in conjunction with the hotel, commercial space and bike center.

“Let’s deal with the ramp,” Ahrens said, adding that for other elements of Judge Doyle Square, “all the other bells and whistles are unnecessary.”

Negotiators for the city and JDS Development are supposed to propose alternatives by Oct. 15 that scale back an initial $174.2 million redevelopment that required a $47.2 million public investment. The City Council will decide the 2015 capital budget the week of Nov. 10.


Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.